Esthetics

The answers to classic esthetic questions change in time, particularly as the success of a pervasive new style renders many old answers dubious, if not ludicrous. Everyone familiar with current art would find obsolete the favorite nineteenth-century categories of the sublime, the tragic, the comic and the picturesque, all of which were derived from a theory of literary and artistic kinds. The reason is simply that those qualities, so conspicuous in much nineteenth-century art, are just not particularly prominent in recent art. . . . It is a modern truth that the same art that seemed incomprehensibly innovative to one generation is likely to strike succeeding generations as all too familiar. Indeed, a great change in art, as in our own time, challenges the old esthetic principles and raises a demand for new formulations that bring traditional preoccupations abreast of new experience; one result of every decisive revolution in art should be a comparable revolution in esthetic thinking.

Esthetics Contemporary (1978)

What Stein had done was recapitulate in language the history of modernist painting. Her initial scrambling of syntax could be considered an appropriate literary analogy for painterly cubism, which likewise scrambled the viewer's observation of an identifiable subject. As in painting, such techniques not only distort the representation of the worldly reality but they also flatten the work's form by diffusing the traditional ways of focusing its space and time. As cubism brought the reorganization of visual space, so Stein revised the frame of literature. Another analogy is the history of atonal music, as composers who avoided the tonics and dominants of classical harmony found other ways of organizing musical sound. All these developments give mediumistic qualities more prominence than they had before. Just as cubist painting forces the viewer to pay closer attention to two-dimensional composition, so Stein's sentences always call attention to themselves as language. What you read is most of what there is.

The next step, in both post-cubist painting and her own writing, was the elimination of an outside subject, once again in order to emphasize the essential properties of the artist's medium. If the materials indigenous to painting are paint and two-dimensional canvases, the mediumistic writer dealt with words and words alone, as in this marvelous passage from "A Sweet Tail (Gypsies)": Able there to bill bawl able to call and seat a tin a tin whip with a collar. The least license is in the eyes which make strange the less sighed hole which is nodded and leaves the bent tender.

Like modernist painters, Stein was interested not in new ideas or new subjects but new perspectives, new perceptions, new forms, and new mediumistic possibilities. Yet the perceptual shifts that an experienced viewer makes before an abstract painting, say, are rarely made in perusing print. As non-representational prose makes no pretense about referring to any reality beyond itself, it need not be "interpreted." What you read is all there is.

By this leap Stein realized another great modernist idea of emphasizing certain dimensions of an art while completely neglecting others. Both Matisse and Picasso neglected the photographic purpose of painting, the former emphasizing coherences of color, while the latter concentrated on alternative ways of organizing lines and shapes on a canvas. "Since Picasso," she once wrote, "no painter uses a model at least no painter whose painting interests anybody. The only thing that is outside them is the painting they have just been painting and all the others which of course are always around them." By neglecting not just conventional syntax but the representational purposes of language, Stein was thus free to emphasize its indigenous elements. Though such writing is frequently called "musical," it actually emphasizes qualities peculiar to words and to them alone, such as puns and incantation. What all of Stein's styles had ultimately accomplished was, quite simply, a reinvention of literary English. Perhaps because she lived so long in places where English was rarely spoken, she wrote her native language so differently from what is commonly heard.

“Gertrude Stein” (2002)